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Non-Binary Performers Are Leading the Most-Watched Shows on HBO Max and I’m Living for It

Who run the world? THEM!

Bella Ramsey attends a red carpet premiere and Emma D'Arcy sits on a stool for an interview

When it comes to prominent roles within the world of acting, the LGBTQ+ community hasn’t been fairly represented for a long, long time. If we weren’t made the butt of a joke or unfairly stereotyped, we were given small, background roles as the gay best friend or sassy queer bully. However, we’ve thankfully seen the landscape change with the emergence of incredible queer talent such Kristen Stewart, Tessa Thompson, and Daniel Levy, who have changed audiences’ perspectives of what being, and playing, lesbian/bisexual/pansexual people looks like. And now, in 2022/2023, we’re seeing another part of the community rise up to take their place in the big league as Emma D’Arcy and Bella Ramsey, two non-binary actors, are leading the two biggest TV shows found on HBO Max.

D’Arcy plays Princess Rhaenyra Targaryen in the hit show House of the Dragon, which is a spinoff of the Game of Thrones franchise. The show follows the timeline of events in George R. R. Martin’s book Fire & Blood, which details the gruesome demise of House Targaryen years before the events of the first season of Game of Thrones. However, though D’Arcy plays a woman on TV, they identify as a non-binary person with they/them pronouns.

Though the the potential to be misgendered as an actor and as a person was a huge risk as they were cast in the role of Rhaenyra, D’Arcy told The Independent that they “really like playing women and [they’re] really good at it,” as they “have all the tools necessary to play women [because they] lived as one for a long time [and] people still think I am one.” They also described their worst-case scenario as “that suddenly people tell me what I can and can’t play” because they see acting as a transformative craft.

Rhaenyra Targaryen in final shot of 'House of the Dragon'
(HBO Max)

Being out within the professional acting world is not always an easy feat, as D’Arcy expressed to E! News that they thought they had to present as a woman to get any kind of success from Hollywood. They, rightfully, explained that hiding their identity wasn’t sustainable, so they stopped pretending and that led them to be cast in one of the biggest shows on the HBO streaming service and clinch a nomination for Best Actress at the Golden Globes. Speaking about their nomination, D’Arcy highlighted why this was such a big deal to them, saying that “it implies the space for trans people and gender non-conforming people is getting bigger all the time.”

And they were absolutely right because, not only three months after House of the Dragon wrapped its first season, the TV adaptation of the video game The Last of Us premiered on HBO Max, co-starring Bella Ramsey, a 19-year-old non-binary actor. Before being cast as Ellie in The Last of Us, Ramsey was most known for her role on Game of Thrones as Lyanna Mormont, the young lady of Bear Island and head of House Mormont. The irony of two superstar non-binary actors being involved with the Game of Thrones brand is beautifully ironic, and I couldn’t love it more. Her new role of Ellie sees her on the ultimate apocalyptic road trip with tough-as-nails Joel (Pedro Pascal) as they make their way across the virus-infested country to find Joel’s brother, Tommy, while trying to avoid both human-eating clickers and, scariest of all, regular human people.

Bella Ramsey standing as Ellie in The Last of Us
(HBO Max)

During an interview with the New York Times, Ramsey explained that her “gender [had] always been very fluid. Someone would call me ‘she’ or ‘her’ and I wouldn’t think about it, but I knew that if someone called me ‘he’ it was a bit exciting.” She also explained to GQ that she doesn’t mind what pronouns are used for her and elected to use she/her for that particular interview. Though she doesn’t identify as a woman, Ramsey, much like D’Arcy, isn’t uncomfortable when it comes to playing female roles. In the same interview, Ramsey explained that what “bothers [her] more than pronouns [is] being called a ‘young woman’ or a ‘powerful young woman’, ‘young lady,’ but I’m just not that.” Ramsey likes playing more feminine characters because it’s “a chance to be something so opposite” of the person she actually is.

However, she does subscribe to some non-binary practices, such as going by they/them pronouns and chest binding. Ramsey recently revealed that she actually wore a chest binder “90 percent of the time” while filming on the set of The Last of Us because it helped her to focus, but did express that this wasn’t healthy and that people should “bind safely.” Chest binding is the practice that helps to minimize the appearance of a person’s breasts and flattens their chest to create a masculine or non-binary appearance. According to a deep dive by Insider, chest binding can help to alleviate gender dysphoria in some people, which is a discomfort toward one’s physical or perceived gender expression. But, as the experts within the article explain, wearing the correct size chest binder is incredibly important to not hurt one’s chest, and they shouldn’t be worn for more than eight hours.

Bella Ramsey as Ellie and Pedro Pascal as Joel in key art for HBO's 'The Last of Us' (HBO)
(HBO Max)

Ramsey also expressed gratitude towards Pedro Pascal, who she described as “super supportive” of her identity and choice to bind, which is not surprising to learn, as Pascal has been openly supportive and loving towards his sister, Lux, who identifies as a trans woman. The two actors would regularly have conversations about gender and sexuality that “weren’t always deep,” according to Ramsey, who went to explain that they were always “very honest and open with each other.” Having such support professionally and personally is probably why Ramsey has delivered such a stellar performance during the first seven episodes of The Last of Us, and will probably continue to do so past season 1 and into the already confirmed Season 2.

But, it’s not just the small screen that’s seeing such an influx of non-binary performers, as Janelle Monáe, a non-binary musician/actor, was one of the co-leads in Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. The sequel to Rian Johnson’s whodunit mystery, Knives Out, was the number one movie on Netflix, with an estimated 35 million households streaming the movie in over 93 countries reported by the site itself. Monáe, who revealed herself to be non-binary during an episode of Red Table Talk, explained that she doesn’t see herself as “as a woman, solely. [She] feels all of [her] energy.” She also explained that she uses both they/them and she/her pronouns going forward during an interview with the Los Angeles Times. Much like Ramsey and D’Arcy, Monáe sees her identity as another tool in her creative arsenal as she explained to People Magazine that “being non-binary has opened up my mind in terms of the type of art I can make and where I can go, who I can be. I’m all about surprising myself and discovering something new.”

GLASS ONION: A KNIVES OUT MYSTERY (2022) Janelle Monáe as Andi and Kathryn Hahn as Claire. Cr: John Wilson/NETFLIX

And it’s a good thing that Monáe loves surprises, because that’s what her role in Glass Onion was all about. Without getting into too much spoiler territory, Monáe plays a woman named Helen Brand who, along with a crew of rich and self-centered people, are invited to spend a weekend at the island estate of tech billionaire and total moron Miles Bron. There’s a ton of twists and turns throughout the film, but more importantly, it puts Monáe’s character front and center, which seems to be a pattern in Johnson’s murder mystery series. Having a woman of color, and a non-binary one at that as the focal point of your mega blockbuster movie is incredibly important for carving out more space in this field.

I’m sure I’ll receive a bunch of comments talking about how “woke” Hollywood is and how we don’t need to prioritize non-binary, trans, and queer actors, but that’s just not true. Just like there weren’t a lot of people of color in TV and movies once upon a time, the LGBTQ community deserves to be represented in the media we consume. And, if you don’t like it, then my sage, worldly advice would be to just. Not. Watch. It. Not everything is made for your consumption, and that’s okay, I promise.

(featured image: Mike Marsland/WireImage/HBO Max)

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